RoboCop [1987]

I can’t quite muster sufficient enthusiasm to drag myself off to see the recent remake of this classic SF-action dystopia. But, when I couldn’t sleep last night I did manage the enthusiasm to join the “Popular on Netflix” sheep and put the original back on, safe in the knowledge that I wouldn’t be missing anything if I managed to fall asleep while it played out. My viewing expectations were formed by two main sources. The first, and lesser, was my dim recollection of the film from watching it sometime in the early 90s. It was vaguely lumped in with other near-future dystopias like Max HeadroomThe Running ManRunaway and Cherry 2000, which all postulate an uneasy relationship between man and technology.

More immediately, Dr Kermode’s discussions of the remake were rattling around in my head, about how this wasn’t a movie about a robot, but about the man inside the robot. I guess when you encounter a critic enough, you begin to spot patterns in their opinions, and Kermode is often interested primarily in the human dimension of any given narrative. On the show, that has lead to “running gags” about whether Jaws is about adultery, or a great big shark. Sometimes the human story intersects with the plot, so when Kermode insists that Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy is not about spies, but a group of men and how they live with their secrets… he’s not wrong inasmuch as that’s what spying is.

My own inclination is always toward the plot, and for this viewing, the story reached out of the screen and smacked me in the face: RoboCop is a super-hero story. Our protagonist begins as an ordinary man, and is transformed into a lethal instrument by a terrible accident and the intervention of a mad scientist. After his transformation, there is the obligatory scene of him exercising his new powers, before he returns to their origin and the supervillain behind it all. Ronny Cox is in fine form as that villain, complete with villainous monologues, an insane plan that makes no sense, and giant killer robots. The film plays out beat-by-beat like any generic superhero film would.

What also strikes me is that it’s a superhero story where the superhero is notably cut-off from the human components that drive the drama in, say, Spiderman. We never see Murphy with his family before his transformation, only a couple of already-nostalgic comments and very short flashbacks. His family are dead before the film even begins, and provide none of the usual dramatic imeptus to his superheroing. We are supposed to invest in his relationship with his police partner – but we only see them together for a handful of minutes before he dies. He is a suerperheo with only a fragmentary personality and no substantial connections to another human being – in what sense then, is this a film about a person?

The film would like us to see RoboCop as a focal point for troubles in society, as a kind of fulcrum about which the society pivots at a crucial moment. This is another crucial strategem of several kinds of superhero stories – see The Dark Knight Returns or virtually any given X-Men narrative. It’s much easier to see him in this mode, but the society is painted in such broad strokes that it’s even easier to see this all as a caricature or satire. The message is delivered in a hammer stroke – Corporations are Evil ™! The inter-cutting of faux news footage doesn’t offer a counterpoint or provide any real context, it’s just more of the same.

What I conclude is that RoboCop is very much a film about a robot who’s a cop. It’s characters are pathetically flat caricatures, and its social message has the nuance of an atomic bomb. It’s decidedly dated in all its special effects too.

What’s potentially more interesting than the film itself, is seeing the prototypes of the story concepts and storytelling methods that will birth Starship Troopers a decade later. Starship Troopers looks and acts like a mindless bit of science fiction thuggery, but it’s far more probing and incisive, tackling many of the same issues that RoboCop does. It adds a much-needed human dimension, and offers a number of counter-points to Heinlein’s fascist original so that it can be interpreted and enjoyed a number of different ways.

Having re-watched the original, I am actually a lot more tempted to try out the re-make. Most re-makes are simply an attempt to cash in on the success of an earlier film, but I feel like that RoboCop has a kernel interesting ideas that are largely under-developed. The main concern I have is that I’ve already seen the proper development of those ideas in RoboCop‘s better contemporaries and the thematic sequel, Starship Troopers.

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